There is no sentimentality to this movie, a real feat considering the subject.
"The Sweet Hereafter" is the story of ordinary individuals blindsided by a calamity. The people of a rural British Columbian town have just lost 14 of their children in the crash of their school bus. By filming the crash without sound, Canadian director Atom Egoyan has created a surreal and unforgettable image--a slash of yellow rushing out of control across a sea of white snow. The yellow bus, universal symbol of protection, slides off a mountain road and rides far out onto a frozen lake before sinking silently through the ice.
The families are visited by Mitchell Stephens (Ian Holm), a lawyer who wants to repair their lives with a class-action lawsuit. He is the classic stranger bearing the seeds of change, welcome or not. It is through his interviews with the families and survivors that we begin to understand the connections, both open and covert, among these people.
We meet the school bus driver who survived, a widowed father, an aging hippie couple, a family of three with a secret, and a pair of adulterous lovers. Key among them is Nicole (Sarah Polley), a teenage survivor now crippled for life. Director Egoyan uses the lawyer to contrast the enormity of the accident with the mundane lives of its victims.
Mitchell wins the confidence of most of the townspeople as he builds his lawsuit, pumping himself up to win their cooperation, only to sag under the weight of his own personal sadness whenever he leaves them. He has lost his own daughter to drugs, and he can do nothing to help her.
This troubled lawyer builds his case. "There is no such thing as an accident; somewhere, someone decided to cut a corner," he rails. Blaming the town, the bus company, and the school board, Stephens presents himself as the one person who knows what is best for the families. When he says, "I will sue for negligence until they bleed," his own rage is leaking from his heart. When he adds, "Let me direct your rage," his own rage is joining a class action looking for an outlet. Ian Holm, as always, plays in subtle tones, and toys repeatedly with the unexpected. He is marvelously incapable of creating a stereotypical lawyer.
There is no sentimentality to this movie, a real feat considering the subject. Atom Egoyan was after something much deeper, a sense of community, perhaps, or the dreariness of the ordinary. His characters are outsiders moving about the edges of their community. None of them is especially likeable. A viewer looking for engagement with these people is likely to be disappointed; but it is precisely that quality that allows us to think dispassionately about loss and resilience, about moments of bravery summoned from mediocrity. Whenever you think of loss from now on, it's a safe bet that Atom Egoyan's horrific, silent vision of the yellow school bus skidding on the frozen lake will haunt your thoughts.
Film Critic : JOAN ELLIS
Word Count : 496
Studio : Fine Line Features
Rating : R
Running Time: 1h50m
Copyright (c) Illusion
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